The Ironies of Grace

It’s an exhilarating and strange thing for a chubby suburbanite like me to find I am a dangerous man. But somebody named Robert M. Zins, Th.M. has deduced that I am and has written an exciting expose of me called “The Marketing of Merit in the Roman Catholic Religion” published in a journal called Theo~Logical, (a quarterly publication of A Christian Witness To Roman Catholicism).

As should be obvious from the name of his ministry, Mr. Zins is pretty certain Catholics are not Christian. He is also, judging from his article, certain that I am a Bad Person. I show “to what depth a Roman apologist will go to make palatable his religion in the hopes of marketing it as Christianity”. I “seek to divert attention away from the facts”. I am “clever in the mixing and matching of [my] terms”. I “dress up” Catholic teaching. I “attempt to avert our eyes away from Christ alone for justification”. I am “teaching the same old heresies when it comes to salvation”. I am “using popular language in hopes of beguiling the uncareful”. I prompt Mr. Zins to declare, “Whether it be the articulate and careful garb of the Council of Trent, or the witty, whimsical attire of 20th century pop theologians [that’d be me], the finery of Rome is as filthy rags compared to the garment of holiness in Christ alone”.

But most sinister of all, says Mr. Zins, “Mr. Shea closes his article with this dreadful conclusion:

‘Under the guidance of the Spirit it is really possible for Catholics and Evangelicals to say, concerning faith and merit, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity.”‘”

All this because I said (in my piece “The Meaning of Merit” (which was published in This Rock, October 1995):

  1. that the Catholic concept of “merit”, means basically what St. Paul said when he told the Galatians that if you sow to the Spirit you shall reap of the Spirit (Galatians 6:7), and
  2. that Evangelicals believe Galatians 6:7, so they ultimately believe the concept of “merit” though they refer to it by names like “fruitfulness”.

That’s it. That’s all. I am “dreadful” because I said there’s not a reason in the world for Catholics and Evangelicals to fight over the idea of “merit” and that I thought this was a good thing.

I cannot for the life of me see why this provokes the ire of Mr. Zins. Nor did Mr. Zins, in the length and breadth of his article, help me to understand. Rather, he seemed intent on proving that Catholics deny the need of God’s grace for salvation and quoted bits of the Council of Trent which he apparently hoped would prove his point. Yet after straining at these gnats he mysteriously swallowed a camel by overlooking the first canon on Justification from the Council of Trent:

If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema. 

This canon explicitly says as strenuously as Zins does that it is impossible to be saved without the grace of God through Jesus Christ, yet Zins mysteriously overlooks it in his zeal to arrive at the forceful conclusion that really, anyway, it was a “dreadful” thing that Evangelicals and Catholics should agree on something. Indeed, so passionate did Mr. Zins become on the central significance of Grace that he was moved to quote St. Paul on my account and write: “In the final analysis, ‘what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?'”

What fascinates me here is the curious way such rhetoric attacks Catholics in the name of Grace and even resents the prospect that Grace-filled Evangelical Christians should behave graciously toward Catholics.

Grace, after all, is “unmerited favor.” Most Evangelicals behave as though this means something and so treat their Catholic brothers and sisters with a lovely and gratuitous charity as they work together to further the aims of the gospel. Most Catholics do the same (as their Church bids them to do.) But a small though not insignificant number of Christians like Mr. Zins (and other such organizations such as Alpha Omega MinistriesChristians Evangelizing CatholicsMission to CatholicsLumen Productions, and so forth) curiously denounce this charity among Christians as somehow constituting weak-kneed Evangelicalism and sinister “Romanist” subterfuge which “denies grace”. And so we get the peculiar spectacle of certain Christians announcing God’s unmerited favor and following through on this proclamation by laboring to condemn and accuse fellow Christians who dogmatically affirm the absolute necessity of grace for salvation. What could be the rationale for this unusual way of expressing faith in God’s unmerited favor?

One popular explanation is that there is much in the Catholic communion that is ugly, sinful and bad (something the Holy Father has himself pointed out in the preparations that led up to the Jubilee Year). When I was an Evangelical contemplating becoming Catholic back in 1987, one of the issues that confronted me was the long history of Catholic sins. Why, I wondered, should I throw my lot in with such a people as this with all their scuzzy problems? Bizarre cultic practices, Mafiosi, sleazy clerics, murderers, ignoramuses, and general wahoos have never been lacking in the Catholic communion, nor are they today. So why give them my stamp of approval by joining their Church?

In a word, Grace. “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst,” said St. Paul to St. Timothy (1 Timothy 1:15). So what made me think I was somehow qualified to separate myself from the mass of great sinners and take my cold and distant place among the elite and pure? The whole point of the motley communion called Catholicism is “you can pick your friends but you are stuck with your family.” Of course Catholics have sinned. That’s the whole point of the gospel, isn’t it? And grace is precisely what God grants to forgive sins-as Trent dogmatically affirms.

And yet, here is this curious group of Christians using “grace” as a sort of code word to condemn Catholics and their Evangelical “fellow travelers”. The curious doctrine of “unmerited favor” bids such Christians to extend unmerited disfavor to Christians who believe in grace as strongly as they do. Indeed, they are impelled to go on condemning Catholics for their phantom “denial of grace” no matter how often Catholics re-affirm the teaching of Trent’s Canon 1 on Justification and no matter how obvious it is that Catholics, like all Christians, believe in Christ as their savior. So adamant is the insistence that a believing Catholic cannot be Christian, it must be shored up with the insistence that they cannot even be honestly mistaken. We must desire to “beguile the uncareful”, not speak in good faith of things we actually think true. And what compels them to take such a dark view of their fellow Christians is “grace.”

What fascinates me about this is that the Catholic Church, which allegedly denies the grace which such Christians profess to proclaim, teaches of Mr. Zins and all the validly baptized people in Mission to CatholicsChristians Evangelizing Catholics and so forth, not that they are a temple of idols, nor that they are agents of Belial, but rather that “it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church” (Decree on Ecumenism, Chapter I, 3 – Second Vatican Council). The Decree says of the rifts in Christendom that, “often enough, men of both sides were to blame.” It “humbly beg[s] pardon of God and of our separated brethren, just as we forgive them that trespass against us” (Decree on Ecumenism, Chapter II, 7 – Second Vatican Council). It exhorts Catholics to “pray to the Holy Spirit for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble, gentle in the service of others, and to have an attitude of brotherly generosity.” It fosters prayer, encouragement, cooperation and esteem of our non-Catholic Christian brethren-even of those who deny its members the name of Christian.

This sounds to me very much like grace. But more than sounding like grace, it acts like it.

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